Braiding Sweetgrass

(Grace) #1

inner faces of the splint unexpectedly beautiful: glossy and warm,
they catch the light like a ribbon of cream satin. The outer surface
is uneven and roughened with splintered ends that leave long
“You need a very sharp knife now,” he says. “I have to use the
whetstone every day. And it’s awfully easy to cut yourself.” John
hands each of us a “leg,” cut from worn blue jeans, and shows us
how to lay the double thickness of denim over our left thighs.
“Deerskin is really the best thing to use,” he says, “if you’ve got
some lying around. But blue jeans work fine. Just be careful.” He
sits with us individually to demonstrate, for the difference between
success and bloodshed is a small degree in the angle of the knife
and the pressure of the hand. He lays the strip across his thigh,
rough side up, and sets the knife edge against it. With his other
hand, he draws the strip out from beneath the knife in a continuous
motion like a skate blade skimming over ice. The shavings gather
on the knife as the strip pulls by. The result is a polished surface.
This too he makes look easy. I’ve seen Kitt Pigeon pull satiny strips
as if she were pulling ribbon from a spool, but my knife snags and I
end up cutting gouges instead of planing it smooth. The angle of
my knife is too sharp and I cut right through, rendering a long pretty
strip into a scrap.
“You’re about up to a loaf of bread,” John says, shaking his head
when I ruin yet another piece. “That’s what my mother would say
when we spoiled splints.” Basket making was and is the livelihood of
the Pigeon family. In their grandfather’s time the lake, woods, and
gardens gave them most of their food and other provisions, but at
times they also needed store goods, and baskets were the cash
crop that bought bread, canned peaches, and school shoes.
Spoiled splints were like food thrown away. Depending on the size

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